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Recycling Risks: Remove Your Digital Self

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
July 1, 2014 Deadline
August 2014 Issue

Recycling Risks: Remove Your Digital Self

Electronics, including our digital gadgets and computers, should be recycled. I encourage everyone to reuse or recycle devices, as long as they recycle wisely.

Green and blue recycling bins stand at the entrances of many major retailers. Cheerful signs encourage shoppers to deposit phones, tablets, and “other electronic devices.” The grocery store in our neighborhood has an electronics recycling station next to the coin counting machine.

If you can get a few dollars in return for doing the right thing, all the better. In the middle of a shopping mall, a kiosk declares, “Instant cash for your phone!” The machine doesn’t actually offer cash. Recyclers receive a mall gift card, which encourages immediate redemption.

One or twice a year, the major office supply chains announce computer and printer recycling programs. My wife and I traded-in old inkjet and laser printers for new models, taking advantage of instant rebates. We also recycle ink and toner cartridges, receiving coupons and gift cards in return.

My wife and I recycle computers by passing them along to friends and family. And, at least for another year or two, our tablets and smartphones are too new to be traded in. But, when it does come time to part with our current devices, we’ll be sure to practice safe recycling.

Too many people forget that phones and tablets store our entire lives. Failing to properly erase, or destroy, the data could lead to serious problems for you and other people in your life. Your phone, tablet and computer might also grant someone access to your employer’s data.

A friend who works at Goodwill Industries told me people fail to take proper precautions before bringing computers, phones and other devices to the drop-off center. Unless you properly erase data from your phone, tablet or other device, that information remains for any unethical recycling employee to access. A basic delete isn’t enough; you need to “wipe” information as securely as possible.

Goodwill employees examine each device for recklessly abandoned data, but other recycling services might not. And, although Goodwill does its best to protect donors, one unethical worker could steal the information from a donated device.

Only a few years ago, you could remove a phone’s SIM card (the “subscriber identification module”) and erase the stored numbers. Even if you lost a phone or donated without removing the SIM card, there was little risk. People tended to store partial names and phone numbers, nothing more, because using a 12-button pad to enter data was tedious.

Until I bought a smartphone, I never stored more than three numbers in my phone. Consider what we store in our phones’ memories today. My phone has my contacts, calendars, notes and much more. There are apps that connect automatically to various services I use, from my book wish lists to a half-dozen social networks. For a time, I had most apps set to ask for my passwords, but I hated entering passwords constantly to check my email or send a colleague a text message.

There are “Erase and Wipe” commands for Android, iOS and Windows devices. When you erase or reset a device, it might not remove the data. Instead, deleting a file on your phone or tablet only marks the memory as reusable. Computers do the same with hard drives.

Your computer is a treasure trove of personal and business data. A malevolent technician could locate anything from banking information to confidential employer documents. If you store data in the cloud, using services like DropBox and Google Drive, the applications and passwords might be stored on your computer, even if the data are not.

Marking the data “deleted” but not actually erasing it, reduces the wear on memory and storage media. That’s also why you can “undelete” files. Nothing is really gone until the memory or media has been overwritten repeatedly with other data. That’s also why erasing files leaves your confidential data at risk.

The “Wipe” command for a phone, tablet or computer might take hours to complete. Instead of marking the memory available for new data, the wipe command writes meaningless data to storage. Simple wipes replace any data with a blank, null or “zero” value. A common high-security wipe of memory or media writes random data, maximum data and then concludes by setting all memory to a blank state.

Some people assume that reformatting a hard drive is secure, but most operating systems default to a “quick format” that only marks the drive as blank without overwriting data.

Apple’s OS X Disk Utility allows you to overwrite a drive once, seven times or 35 times to securely erase data. The 35 rewrites option takes hours and only should be used with a mechanical hard drive. Do not erase a solid-state drive (SSD) more than once, or you can shorten its life significantly.

Microsoft and the Linux Software Foundation recommend KillDisk (killdisk.com) to wipe data from Windows and Linux storage media. The KillDisk utility offers similar options to Apple’s Disk Utility for multiple-pass overwriting of data.

Because my wife and I religiously backup our data using external hard drives, we have a storage bin filled with old drives that are beyond their expected lifespan. Most drives are rated for three to five years, and after five I don’t recommend trusting any storage device. I recently replaced a six-year-old external backup drive that works, but it was time to swap it for safety.

We keep the old drives for a couple of years, but there is point at which they serve no purpose. An ancient 120-megabyte IDE mechanical drive in a USB 1.1 enclosure should be recycled.

You can attach an older drive, reformat the drive and then take it to a recycling center. If you want to be more secure, the best way to render the data useless is to disassemble an old drive. Mechanical drives are sensitive devices; exposing the internal platters renders them useless.

I believe in recycling computing devices, but do it safely.

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